Tell Me Why Review — Searching for Transparency
Tell Me Why doesn't stray far from Dontnod's style of episodic storytelling, but features rich characters and compelling representation.
Tell Me Why
Xbox Game Studios
Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Review copy provided by the publisher
**Editor’s Note: This review encompasses all three chapters of Tell Me Why, which we were able to play prior to their weekly release starting today. Our review will look at the game in its complete form; however, we’ll refrain from mentioning any significant story spoilers in the review for each episode, other than establishing Tell Me Why‘s core premise, themes, and characters.**
From the opening moments of Tell Me Why, there is more than a sense of feeling that the game could be right at home within the Life is Strange universe. From its picturesque setting in the mountains of Alaska, to its deep exploration of issues surrounding identity, family, and trauma, developer Dontnod Entertainment’s latest episodic series has some of the familiar beats and rhythms that we’ve come to expect from its own take on this style of storytelling. Yes, the game will have you make tough choices, and yes, those decisions in the end will matter.
However, past that initial first impression of familiarity, Tell Me Why opens up to become something else of its own, especially through the eyes of its two sibling protagonists and a diverse cast of characters. It’s a story less focused on blending the supernatural with tough subject matter and real-world issues, and instead develops a compelling experience around memory, family, and coming to terms with the past.
Like Life is Strange before it, Tell Me Why is an episodic narrative adventure game that unfolds over the course of three chapters, which will be releasing in weekly installments. The focus of the story revolves around Tyler and Alyson Ronan, twin siblings from Alaska that reconnect a decade after traumatic events that surround their mother’s death. Following their reunion, Tyler and Alyson discover that there are deeper truths to the events that occurred ten years earlier, and begin uncovering what really happened by tracking down other important figures in their lives in the small mountain town of Delos Crossing.
The first chapter of Tell Me Why is largely exposition heavy to familiarize players with its two main protagonists and the area of Delos Crossing, but from there, the story unfolds to bring players through its intriguing mystery narrative. After discovering new pieces of evidence that put their past into question, Tyler and Alyson search for answers relating to their mother’s death, leading the player to discover these revelations and insights alongside them. However, Dontnod also wisely gives room for the player to make their own interpretations about the events they’re witnessing, as several variations of the “truth” will be presented for players to choose which version they will accept.
“The focus of the story revolves around Tyler and Alyson Ronan, twin siblings from Alaska that reconnect a decade after traumatic events that surround their mother’s death.”
While the core mystery of the story isn’t unusual for an episodic game in this style, what really brings Tell Me Why together is the core relationship between Tyler and Alyson. Early on the series establishes that Tyler and Alyson shared a troubled childhood, and much like the Diaz brothers in Life is Strange 2, Dontnod uses that sibling connection as a way for players to more immediately understand and engage with these characters in an empathetic way. Though both of the twins have their own personal struggles and histories that are explored throughout the series, there is the immediate sense that Tyler and Alyson are still there to look out for each other, making their bond feel real and believable.
Dontnod reinforces the connection even further between Tyler and Alyson through the “Bond” mechanic, where the twins will encounter certain scenarios from different perspectives and replay memories from their past. Illuminated by glowing lights in the environment, the player can recreate moments from Tyler and Alyson’s past, giving further context and insight into how they piece together the events from their childhood. After reliving these memories, the player will then have to decide between two different versions of these events from Tyler or Alyson’s point-of-view, and choose between which way the story proceeds from there.
“The interesting opportunities that the Bond mechanic presents feel like they could have had a greater impact on how players choose to progress through the story.”
The Bond mechanic presents an interesting take on the usual decision-making that we see in a lot of narrative games in this style, and in a lot of ways, it’s an idea that I wish Tell Me Why took a little bit further. The idea in itself is engaging and adds some complexity to making tough decisions that have an impact on the narrative, but oftentimes, it still leaves players with fairly binary choices between an “option A” and “option B.” Likewise, the Bond mechanic also opens up new dialogue options between Tyler and Alyson in certain conversations, but it too feels like a mechanic that is a little underutilized and could have expanded how to interact with other characters. Though there are multiple epilogues that can play out by the game’s end, the interesting opportunities that the Bond mechanic presents feel like they could have had a greater impact on how players choose to progress through the story.
One of the most significant aspects of Tell Me Why‘s storytelling and characterization comes from its inclusion of Tyler, who is a transgender man, that players alternate between playing as with his sister, Alyson. Importantly, Tyler being trans is a key part of the story, but doesn’t entirely center itself around Tyler’s gender identity as its core focus. Prior to its release, Dontnod Entertainment released an FAQ that details some of the more specific questions that players may have surrounding Tyler and how he is represented in the game, and it’s worth a look for the developer’s insights on how they handled portraying a transgender character in an authentic light.
“Tyler is surely a character that represents a big shift towards more inclusive storytelling, and is one of the highlights throughout Tell Me Why both in his characterization and performance.”
Given that there have been some flawed instances of trans representation in games and other forms of media (even recently), it was natural to assume that there are several ways in which the portrayal of Tyler could have been mishandled. However, Tell Me Why‘s approach to portraying Tyler in a way that doesn’t resort to tropes or problematic narrative beats is refreshing, and is easily one of the story’s strongest elements. Tyler himself is a fully-realized and well-developed character, and though the story does portray moments in his past prior to his transition, Dontnod handles these scenes respectfully and with care, especially with awareness towards issues such as deadnaming and transphobia. Tyler is surely a character that represents a big shift towards more inclusive storytelling, and is one of the highlights throughout Tell Me Why both in his characterization and performance.
Alongside Tyler, Tell Me Why features a rich array of characters that leave a lasting impression throughout the story and kept me invested in learning more about them. Alyson goes through her own struggles with mental illness and anxiety that are explored throughout the game’s chapters, while others like Michael and Eddy offer unique perspectives as supporting characters from indigenous backgrounds, in this case being from the Tlingit culture (which Dontnod consulted with cultural groups to represent authentically). Likewise, Tell Me Why manages to portray its characters in a way that doesn’t try to pin them in wholly negative or positive lights. Every character that Tyler and Alyson encounter have human flaws, and understanding their motivations behind the decisions they’ve made in their lives and how that has affected the twins’ future is one of the most engaging parts of its narrative.
“Tell Me Why manages to craft an engaging story that’s worth seeing through to the very end, especially in regard to its well-developed characters and core relationship between Tyler and Alyson.”
Tell Me Why isn’t a major deviation from what we expect from episodic narrative experiences, but it’s one of the few that feels like it has really gotten the storytelling format right for video games. At three episodes in length, the series feels concise and well-paced, and with its new chapters releasing weekly, players won’t experience a protracted wait between new episodes that happened with Life is Strange. More importantly, Tell Me Why manages to craft an engaging story that’s worth seeing through to the very end, especially in regard to its well-developed characters and core relationship between Tyler and Alyson. Tell Me Why features several stories from unique, diverse backgrounds that we should surely hear more of, while also offering themes and ideas that can (and should) speak to everyone.